Interview with Shailja Patel

Shailja Patel1. Did you move into writing poetry gradually, or did any one thing push you over the edge?

Poetry chose me, when I was very young. I’ve been making up poems since before I learned how to write.

2. Please tell us about Migritude. Is it a play? A poem? A monologue?

Migritude is an epic journey, in four movements.

I coined the word Migritude as a play on Negritude and Migrant Attitude. It asserts the dignity of outsider status. Migritude celebrates and revalorizes immigrant/diasporic culture. It captures the unique political and cultural space occupied by migrants who refuse to choose between identities of origin and identities of assimilation, who channel difference as a source of power rather than conceal or erase it.

The four works that make up the Migritude Cycle draw on my Hindu spiritual heritage. They reference the earliest religious teaching imparted to Hindu children: that of the First Four Gods. The Hindu child is taught that her first god is her Mother. The second god is her Father. The third god is her Teacher. The fourth god is The Guest.

Part I, The Mother (When Saris Speak), is a 90-minute spoken-word one-woman theatre show which has toured internationally. It has also been published, in a bilingual Italian-English edition, by Lietocolle, and is currently shortlisted for Italy’s Camaiore Prize. It uses my trousseau of saris, passed down by my mother, to reveal how imperialism and colonialism, in India and Kenya, were – and continue to be – enacted on the bodies of women.

It explores what diasporic daughters receive and reject from their mothers; delves into the relationship of migrants to the motherland, the mother tongue, the severing of those relationships and the forging of new transnational identities. Letters from my mother form an important part of the script, bridging the spaces between generations and continents.

Part II of the Migritude Cycle addresses the second archetype in the Four Gods theme: The Father (Bwagamoyo). It will have its world script premiere on June 3rd, in Uppsala, Sweden, where I am currently in residence as African Guest Writer at the Nordic Africa Institute.

It explores constructions of masculinity and race under colonialism. It will examine how the architecture of Empire is codified on the bodies of men: brown, black, and white. It covers a wide range of territories, from the island of Pemba where my father was born and raised, to Kenya’s post-election violence, to the modern Swedish cinema of Ingmar Bergman!

The working title of the show is Bwagamoyo — drawn from two Swahili words: Bwaga — to dump, and Moyo — heart. Bwagamoyo was the original name given to two specific locations on the Swahili Coast: the town in Tanzania where slaves were brought from the inland and held for shipping, and a small island in the Zanzibar archipelago that was a holding prison for slaves. Both are now known as Bagamoyo.

The original Bwagamoyo was a chilling admonition to the kidnapped human beings to literally dump their hearts, meaning their humanity, at these spots, since they would no longer use or need them once they left as slave cargo. Bwagamoyo is an equally apt metaphor for the socialization of boys into the kinds of manhood shaped by colonial power.

3. Poets spend a lot of time perfecting their craft, and then perfecting each piece. So, where’s the money?

When I find out, you’ll be the first to know 🙂

4. What makes you write? Is it more natural for you to write about specific themes, or does anything go?

Anything that moves me – to rage or laughter, to joy or grief or wonder. Anything I find beautiful, and want to capture and convey to others.

Big questions that I don’t have answers to. Writing is my way to explore them.

Silence. I’ve always been called to break silences – silences of history, silences within families or communities or countries. I always notice whose voices and stories are not being heard in a particular space. My mission as a poet is to make any platform I’m offered larger for all silenced and marginalised voices.

5. What advice do you have for Poéfrika readers who might start wanting to get published?

1) Finish your pieces.
2) Edit them. Make them the best they can be, without getting bogged down in perfectionism.
3) Put them out into the world! Set yourself a do-able goal, like submitting one poem a week, or one story a month, to journals and competitions, and meet it.
4) Find a writing community, where you can share your work, ask questions, gather information, and make connections to other writers. It could be online, if you don’t live in a place with other writers around.
5) Keep doing 1) to 4). Don’t get stuck waiting for results, or paralysed if your stuff isn’t accepted immediately. Think of the thousands of miles a runner logs in their training, or the thousands of hours of practice put in by a dancer. You’re not a writer when you get published. You are a writer every day that you write, and work your craft, and take the next tiny step towards your larger goals.

6. What role do politics play in your writing? Your poem Eater of Death comes to mind. Or your stance against the use of the term “ethnic cleansing” during the post-election violence in Kenya at the beginning of last year.

Politics is essentially about power – who has it, how they wield it, who doesn’t. Two quotes sum up the role it plays in my writing:

Arundhati Roy: “…once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”

Chinua Achebe: I do think decency and civilization would insist that the writer take sides with the powerless. Clearly, there’s no moral obligation to write in any particular way. But there is a moral obligation, I think, not to ally oneself with power against the powerless. I think an artist, in my definition of that word, would not be someone who takes sides with the emperor against his powerless subjects.

Chinua Achebe, 2008, foreword to Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden

7. You are to encourage poetry students to write a poem. Please come up with a “writing prompt” out of your own experience, or out of something else, using anything that invades your mind right now. Very short and simple.

My voices hide in…

8. I don’t know whether you speak KiSwahili or another Kenyan language besides English. If you do, do you draw from that language’s related culture, sound, etc?

Migritude II: The Father, is subtitled Bwagamoyo — drawn from two Swahili words: Bwaga — to dump, and Moyo — heart. I draw on Kiswahili in several of the pieces in this work, and in other poems, such as “Drum Rider”.

One of my best-known poems is “Dreaming In Gujurati”, in which I explore reclaiming voice and language.

9. Where do you write? And why there?

Wherever the words come. I’ve written poems on table napkins, the backs of receipts, the margins of magazines on airplanes. I’ve written standing under street lamps, against the walls of telephone booths, standing in lines for the bus. I’ve even typed lines into my cellphone when I’ve been caught without paper or pen, and saved them as notes or sent them as texts to myself.

Right now, I have the enormous luxury of an office (shared with other guest researchers) at the Nordic Africa Institute. My desk is next to floor-to-ceiling windows, which look out on the main street of the city, and I get lots of natural sunlight, which I love. It’s such a privilege to have a fixed place to write, a large computer screen, all the tools I need within reach, that it’s hard to leave each night — I feel like I’m losing precious writing hours.

10. Here’s an on-going poem. Please continue it.

They stood before me that night
With clenched fists and blown pupils,
Shadowed by leafless branches of a cotton tree,
The moon as bright as the moon and no metaphor

For which image can serve? What simile
Makes sense enough? The ghosts that guard
The tree nod yes, though I’ve not said a thing.
One shade uncurls and crooks a bony finger, calling me.

The voices rise up like be-headed trees
I stumble forward fear at my heels
How did this night arrive and where is wisdom’s heed
“Gone my child is your clothes — face now this thing.”

So strip off your nudity, and learn to be naked.
Release your fears as branches drop leaves
and let yourself see.

Kenyan poet, playwright and theatre artist, Shailja Patel is also the creator of Migritude. She is author of Migritude I: When Saris Speak, and two collections of poetry: Dreaming In Gujurati, and Shilling Love. Her work has been translated into eight languages.

Shailja is 2009 Guest Writer at the Nordic Africa Institute. CNN describes her as an artist “who exemplifies globalization as a people-centered phenomenon of migration and exchange.” The Gulf Today (United Arab Emirates) calls her “the poetic equivalent of Arundhati Roy.”

Patel is an active member of Kenyans for Peace, Truth and Justice, which works towards a just and equitable democracy in Kenya.